It’s 10 a.m. on a summer Thursday, and from the sun-drenched atrium inside Nellie Reynolds Gardens, a cheery Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) property for seniors in North Philly, Albert Dukes is smiling.
A born-and-raised Philadelphian, Dukes said he had good reason to be happy: Lyft has just launched a pilot program offering eight shared rides per month to residents of 10 PHA properties, including his, for just $2.50 each way, as part of its Grocery Access Program. The initiative, which launched first in Washington in 2018 and is already in place in nine other U.S. cities, is a partnership between Lyft, PHA, and Uplift Solutions, the nonprofit that since 2009 has focused on increasing access to healthy food and workforce development in underserved communities. The six-month pilot program kicked off here on Sept. 1 and runs through Feb. 29.
For Dukes, the program has the potential to be transformative.
“First of all, we’re seniors, and mobility is a problem. Getting around in the neighborhood is a problem. So we appreciate all the help we can get,” he said. “But the biggest problem is that we’re on a fixed income. And sometimes we have to choose between food or paying for our medications.”
The sky-high prices of the taxis at the markets he visits are prohibitive, he said. “They charge an arm and a leg, and we really can’t afford that.”
Dukes is not alone. Food transportation barriers affect approximately 23.5 million people in the United States. Nationwide, city leaders have implemented various interventions to help. Just this summer, for example, Washington rolled out a program offering free taxi rides to grocery stores for residents of certain neighborhoods, valid through the end of September. And as countless studies have shown, access to grocery stores increases residents’ likelihood of consuming fresh, not processed, food.
“We’re happy that people can go back to a healthier lifestyle; it will bring down our cost of health care, it will increase longevity, and most importantly it will increase the quality of life for people,” said State Sen. Sharif Street (D., Philadelphia), whose district includes the properties zoned for the program.
The Grocery Access Program will shuttle residents to one of two participating grocery stores: Fresh Grocer at 1501 N. Broad Street, and ShopRite at 2800 Fox Street. The latter is one of 10 ShopRite stores owned by Jeff Brown, who serves on Uplift’s board (and is known in Philly for his opposition to Mayor Kenney’s soda tax on the grounds that it is bad for the grocery business). As part of his mission, Brown said, he is committed to nurturing the communities around his stores — building an in-store community room for local organizations to host meetings, for example, and providing employment opportunities for those with criminal records who often get overlooked in the hiring process.
One concern about the success of the Grocery Access Program is whether seniors, in particular, even have or use smartphones, which are the backbone of ride-sharing services like Lyft. PHA insists, however, that on-site staff will do whatever they can to support the tech needs of residents.
“There are going to be some technology challenges — that is a barrier for our community,” said PHA spokesperson Nichole Tillman. “But we have to start somewhere.”
Andrew Woolf, Lyft’s regional director for Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware, said he is hopeful that the six-month pilot will be a success, and can expand beyond its initial run.
“We recognize that food deserts are a major problem in Philadelphia and other cities, and we want to reduce the barrier that is transportation,” he said. “We think this is the right thing to do to help people get fresh and healthy groceries.”
Do-good work may be particularly on-trend in 2019, but Lyft’s leadership appears to be committing serious money to the mission: Since its IPO in March, according to Forbes, Lyft has launched Lyft City Works to “make cities more livable,” funding it with either 1% of profits or $50 million annually, whichever sum is greater.
Dukes, the North Philly resident, is already convinced of the program’s relevance. “I’m so glad [about] Lyft and Uplift Solutions,” he said. “Now I can have extra dollars to spend in the store.”